Spezieria: The Italian Apothecary

After many months of research into the Italian books of secrets I began to wonder, if you weren’t making them yourself, where you might go to buy cosmetics. I wanted to answer a few questions:

  1. What was the name of the shop that would sell cosmetics and other beauty/health supplies?
  2. What items would those shops offer?
  3. Who would frequent the shop?
  4. What types of records from the shopkeepers might be in Italian archives?

spezieria di san giovanni at scorcidiparma

The first link I found was the jars that the apothecaries might use to hold their wares. The term for a jar is alberello. An albarello, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a pottery jar for apothecaries’ ointments and dry drugs … produced in Italy from the 15th through the 18th century in the form known as majolica, or tin-glazed earthenware. Since the jar had to be easy to hold, use, and shelve, its basic form was cylindrical but incurved for grasping and wide-mouthed for access. All albarelli are about 7 inches (18 centimeters) high. A few have close-set handles, but, because they were not designed to hold liquids, they are generally free of spouts, lips, handles, and outcurved forms. A piece of paper or parchment tied around the rim served as a cover for the jar.”


A quick Google search for images gives you an idea of the varieties of alberelli there were. I would imagine that aside from these very decorative ones, there were also plain ones.

After finding the alberello term I stumbled upon the term spezieria. I had originally looked for farmacia, as they are called in the current and last century… but apparently in the 15th and 16th centuries cities were known for their spezieria. Spezierie (or, spezie) are spices. The speziale, or apothecary, was in charge of processing and mixing herbs and spices to produce unguenti (ointments), tisane (herbal teas), and sciroppi (natural syrup bases). In their simple gardens (Hortus Simplicium) the speziale cultivated herbs for curatives which were labelled simplici (simple) for the straight herbal ones, and compositi (composite) for the ones created via mixing substances.

The Spezieria di San Giovanni in Parma was founded by Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages. It has been documented in the same location since 1201 AD, and today is open as a tourist attraction with it’s historic interior restored. The Speziale al Giglio in Florence, has much the same story, and has been in operation at least since 1464. Once once owned by Tommaso dei Guidi, this apothecary shop is still a major attraction in Florence.

From there I found the diary of Luca Landucci who was a Florentine apothecary who kept an account of the daily occurrences in his city from 1450 until his death in 1516. Then I stumbled upon an archive site where some of the notable apothecaries transaction registers are posted (yes!!!!). I’ve begun assembling the research to make my dream of running a small apothecary shop for living history events possible.

spezieria th-8_pharmacie

So, the answers that I have found so far to my original questions are:

  • What was the name of the shop that would sell cosmetics and other beauty/health supplies?
    • Spezieria (Spezieria di San Giovanni), Farmacia, Aromatario (Aromatario della Luna), or Speziale (Speziale al Giglio)
  • What items would those shops offer?
    • Ointments, oils, pomades, cosmetics, creams, soaps, perfumes, candles, potpourri, specialty foods and candies, liqueurs and syrups, medicinal preparations, herbal tisanes, herbal waters, remedies, pigments. Also, seating with games.
  • Who would frequent the shop?
    • Laborers, fisherman, painters, and housewives to buy prescription drugs, sweets, candles, or to listen to gossip or play chess. For instance, Ghirlandaio is recorded in the register of the Speziale al Giglio.
  • What types of records from the shopkeepers might be in Italian archives?
    • Business registers, diaries (ricordi), and records of sales. For instance, the archive of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence has the records of many apothecary shops of the early Renaissance with names, debts, and payments of clients. They kept these records for legal purposes in case of disputes over credit and payment, and for tax purposes.




I want to be this girl when I grow up. Excellent work on her Italian wardrobe!

Originally posted on Cathelina di Alessandri:

A gamurra is the layer worn over the camicia and were suitable for very informal situations such as wearing around your own home when you weren’t receiving visitors.

Gamurre were very tightly fitted and laced up the front. Occasionally you see side lacing which would be very beneficial for pregnancy. Sleeves could be sewn on or attached with pins or lacing ties.

My blue gamurra was the first I made



I based my brown gamurra on this portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci


The skirt panels on this dress are rectangles and it is double box pleated.


My yellow gamurra has a slightly lower neckline and higher waist and was inspired by some of the Venetian styles

1470 The Meeting of Jephthah and his Daughter BENVENUTO DI GIOVANNI


My fabric was a very pale pink so I dyed it in the bath with some fibre reactive dyes. It turned out a beautiful yellow.

skirt pattern

I cut my panels into…

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Bingen’ s Calming Water, an Original Composition


An idea for a calming perfume :)

Originally posted on Segreti del Pavone:

image  To finish off the end of the summer perfume series, I came up with an original composition based on the works of St. Hildegarde of Bingen.  For those not familiar with her, St. Hildegarde was a 12th century German mystic who wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects.  She also has musical works attributed to her.  Pope John Paul II named her a Father of the Church.  One of her books, Physica, recommends a potpourri of rose and sage to “calm and quiet a troubled mind and soul”.  You can just make a potpourri and keep it on your desk, (a recommendation from a friend of mine who swears it helps office tension) or you could wear this lovely fragrance.  I came up with this recipe.


I put two fresh roses from my garden (I grow knock-out roses) along with two fresh sage leaves in a clean…

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A feast for hunters


Yummy ideas!

Originally posted on Exploring the medieval hunt:


As autumn is moving in we thought that we needed to connect with all our friends that has seen us out and about reenacting hunters. We also wanted to show people how easy it can be to gather in medieval a setting, and at the same time encourage those that has not been into reenacting in this way before to join up.

Of course, we also wanted to show some part of the medieval hunt, and also educate our fellows around this subject. The choice soon fell upon ‘The gathering’. This is the place where the hunters gather and wait for all the preparatory work before the actual chase. The great hunt, the hunt that was mostly praised and the hunt most huntbooks are concerned about, was a big affair.  Many people and dogs where involved. It was usually prepared the day before, if not several days ahead.

In the…

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Lyons Swiss Export playing cards


I love this Signora’s posts on pre-17th century playing cards!

Originally posted on Lady Heather Hall:

20141013_114446-1[1]  These cards are based, with influences of other specimens, on a pack known to have been in Sylvia Mann’s collection, and is dated pre-1600.
The Jacks in this particular pack are a macho lot!
When this pattern was produced, colors included yellow and red (most cards do), as well as black, pale blue-grey, and vivid purple. Although I am researching possible recipes for the pigments, I will likely er on the side of presentation and go with what looks most consistent.

20141016_153536-1[1]As the oldest specimens of this pattern that I could find are finished and painted (as opposed to an unfinished sheet found in a book binding), I had to do some guessing as to what lies under the thicker, darker stencil paints.

There are three packs in queue for coloring, as I felt it may be a more efficient process, even though they will not have all the…

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Bassetta – A Renaissance Italian Card Game

Bassetta, as researched by Giata Magdalena Alberti


Bassetta, according to Giovanni Florio’s Worlde of Wordes is a card game in Renaissance Italy. Game historians list Bassetta, known as Basset in English and Bassette in French, as the most notorious multi-player gambling pastime of Europe from the 15th to 18th Centuries. It is considered a game of chance or a giochi d’azzardo. Bassetta originated in Italy, was introduced into France, and from there travelled across the sea to become popular in English court circles. Played in Italy beginning circa 1500 it travelled slowly, as it was not recorded in England until around 1700. Bassetta was barely mentioned in Charles Cotton’s 1674 edition of The Compleat Gamester, but rated a long entry in the 1721 edition. The game has huge potential losses thus in France an edict was declared so the privilege of being a talliere (banker for the game) could only be given to the “sons of great families” and the lower orders were prevented from gambling more than a certain amount. That edict did not prevent several families from falling into financial ruin so in 1691 the game was banned by Louis XIV.

The oldest piece of documentation that I have found regarding Bassetta place the game in Florence circa 1478. The game is spoken of on lines 15 and 16 in a carnival song entitled Canzona de Confortini which means Song of the Donuts: “We have cards, and … bassetta, and need one to raise, or the other to bet”.

In the letters of Signore Antonio Guevara (1585), he writes of the privilege of playing table games and card games such as primiera, bassetta, and trionfo: “E privilegio…auttorita di giuocare a pimiera, alle tavole, alle dodeci pietre, al toccadiglio, alla bassetta, al trionfo, alla ronsa…”.

Sussana Centlivre’s The Basset Table  is a comedy of gambling culture featuring Lady Reveller, a young widow of means who earns extra “pin-money” hosting games of Bassetta at her house. She is the talliere[1] and runs the “basset table” during the games.

That cards, and specifically Bassetta, were played commonly in the Italian City-States at least as far back at the mid 15th Century is proven by the mention of Lorenzo dei Medici in his canzone, by the references of Signore Guevara, and by playing manuals like those of Francesco Berni and Toruato Tasso. Additionally, that these games spread west through Europe is documented by authors like Passi, Etherege, and Centlivre and verified by historians like Samuel Singer. Now that we have established that the game originated in period[2], let us cover the rules of the game.


[1] Banker

[2] Period is defined as antiquity to 1600 AD


Suit of 'cups' from a German deck made in 1616 with Italian suits.

Suit of ‘cups’ from a German deck made in 1616 with Italian suits.


Giata’s Redaction

You will need:

  • Florins, Ducats, Grossi[1] (or poker chips) for each Punter (Player)
  • The same for the Talliere (Banker)
  • 2 decks of cards for the Talliere’s hand (plus an additional one for every 4 more Punters)
  • 1 book of cards (containing all 13 of any suit) for each Punter


A Punter may request a particular suit but this has no bearing on play. Once the Punter has her books she decides which of her own cards she would like to play and places them face up on the table. She bets by placing her coin(s) on top of the card. Any amount of cards in her book may be bet upon in a turn.

Once all bets are placed the Talliere turns up the bottom card of the deck and wins half the amount of each bet placed on the same kind of card.

The Talliere then deals two cards at a time from the top of the deck. The first card wins for the Punter, the second cards wins for the Talliere. A good theme to remember for the Talliere is “pay, then collect”.

If the Punter wins, she collects a match of what she bet. She may then either keep the bet won and retire the card or make the card a Paroli leaving the card and the original bet in play in hopes that it is turned up again. To show the card is a Paroli a marker or bean can be used, and an additional one can be placed for each successive escalation of the bet:

  • First Paroli is paid times 7
  • Second Paroli is paid times 15
  • Third Paroli is paid times 30[2]
  • Fourth Paroli is paid times 60[3]


If the Paroli loses at any of these stages the punter only loses the amount of the original bet.

The final card in the deck is a winning card for the Talliere.




[1] Types of coins from Italian City-States

[2] Documented at 33 but rounded down for simplicity

[3] Documented at 67 but rounded down for simplicity






Filosofia Cortesana


In 1587 a tratado entitled “La Filosofia Cortesana Moralizada”, was circulated in Spain. The booklet describes the rules of a board game of the same name, Filosofia Cortesana, created by Alonso de Barros (Feros 2002, Martinez Millan 1996). Akin to the modern game titled “Life” or “Chutes and Ladders”, players use pieces to move along the path according to rolls of the die or instructions on the board (Burke 1996, Ruan 2011). The purpose of the game is to show how to survive and advance at court, achieving success among the pitfalls of life as a cortesana (Martinez Millan 1996). The player mimics the progress of an ambitious courtier, handling the ups and downs of their courtly career. The challenges and rewards are reflected in the names of some of the caselle of the game which leads to and ends for the winner at the “Palm of Victory”.


Filosofia Cortesana Class APA


The origin of Filosofia Cortesana is the game called Gioco dell’Oca (Game of the Goose, circa 1570) from Florence:

It is clear that clever men, after the first invention of one thing, adding or changing on the same basic idea, find out other inventions. We know this happened for the Game of the Goose, at the time of our fathers: that game was invented in Florence and, since it was very much appreciated, Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decided to send it to his Majesty Philip II of Spain. When it was published there, it gave the opportunity to some smart minds to invent other games little different from the first one, among which there is the game known as Courtly Philosophy, invented by Alonso de Barros from Spain.” – (Carrera 1617, p 25)


The title of the game, Filosofia Cortesana, and the name of the author, Alonso de Barros, are both printed on the board. Filosofia Cortesana is similar to Gioco dell’Oca as they both have 63 numbered cells, arranged in a counter-clockwise circle that spirals inward. Gioco dell’Oca is the oldest dated percourso game in Europe (Carrera 1617). The 63 caselle in Filosofia Cortesana represent “the years of life” (Murray 1952). Instead of oca cells*, there are spaces named for travaglio (work) at numbers 4, 12, 17, 23, 30, 34, 41, 48 and 57. Filosofia Cortesana was presented to Philip II, the King of Spain, as a gift in 1588. The board was so large that de Barros instructed that it be nailed to a permanent table (Martinez Millan 1996).

Pieces called “chips” are used to mark the player on a caselle (Martinez Millan 1996). The chip could be made of metal, bone, or wood just for gaming or it could be a small token, such as a bean, ring, watch, or coin, that identified the player.(Martinez Millan 1996). The player rolls the dice, enters the first space by a “door of public opinion”, and lands on a caselle where he could receive money or be allowed to advance a certain number more (Ruan 2011). Conversely, after a few turns, the player could lose what he had already gained or be made to start the game over at the first space.


Game Board Translation

“Filosofia Cortesana de Alonso de Barros” [Courtly philosophy by Alonso de Barros]. On the left: a dolphin and anchor with writing “Date prisa e espacio” [Hustle and set out or ‘make haste’]. On the right: a female figure with hair half-shaved with writing “No me pierdas” [Do not lose or ruin me].

“Criado del Rey Nuestro Senor/ Con su privilegio/ Con privilegio di Sua Ecc. A per X anni nel Regno di Napoli/ Marius Cartarius inc. Neap 1588” [Created with permission of our Lord the King - With exclusive right by his majesty for ten years in the kingdom of Naples - Engraved by Marius Cartarius -, Naples, 1588]. On the left, before casa 1: “Guarda l’fine” [Watch for the end]. From the swan’s trumpet: “Nosce te Ipsum” [Know thyself]. On the right: a hand points to a clock with writing “Haesta la postrera” [Until the last].

In the Center
At the top on a banner: “Mare di soffrimento / chi pretende hà da soffrire / come chi nasce il morire” – “Mar de suffrimiento/ Quien pretende ha da suffrir/ Como el que nace morir” [The sea of suffering, whoever is ambitious will suffer, just as whoever is born will die]. At the bottom on the right a fisherman that holds a fish in one hand and loses a shoe with the writing: “Mai salirà gran costa / che mira quanto costa “ – “Nunca Subira gran cuesta / Quien mirare lo que cuesta” [He will never gain great heights, who looks at the cost].

To traverse the Caselle/Casa spaces two six-sided dice are required. The youngest goes first. Roll the dice and move your “chip” the same amount of spaces. Follow the directions on the space. For a list of all the original and translated directions on each caselle see my paper here.

*Geese are traditionally printed at spaces 5, 9, 14, 18, 23, 27, 32, 36, 41, 45, 50, 54, 59, and 63 of Gioco dell’Oca


Giata’s Redaction

You Will Need:

  • The game board
  • A pair of six-sided dice
  • A token to represent each player
  • A copy of the translations for each caselle

 If you are playing the gambling version have each player put their wager into a nearby (empty) cup. Whoever wins the game wins the contents of the cup.

If you are playing the drinking version be sure to have consensus on which caselle will require a drink[1].

The youngest goes first. Each player rolls the dice and moves their token the same amount of spaces. The player follows the instructions on the caselle.

When you land on a work space you may advance to the next travaglio caselle before you end your turn, if you are on the last travaglio caselle. When you land on a go to and pay space move your token to the listed caselle.

Buona fortuna!

See the full Filosofia Cortesana KASF Entry for Giata Alberti here.